Last week, I wrote about a lesser-used technique to cheat melodrama, and that prompted several people to ask me, "What's melodrama?" These weren't idle questions. So many times, in these discussions, I heard people give a variation of the old definition-of-pornography standard. "I can't describe it, but I know it when I see it." We know when something feels melodramatic, but we don't always know why it feels that way.
So I thought it might make make sense to talk about some of the ways drama tilts over into melodrama. Let's start by establishing a basic concept we've discussed before in other contexts on this blog: proportion matters. The size of a reaction should be roughly the same as the size of the action that caused it. The amount of attention paid to a particular setting or character or action should match the relative importance of that setting or character or action.
There are times we manipulate proportion to achieve certain effects. For example, in mysteries, we often try to hide clues in plain sight by mentioning them in small ways, and then surrounding them with bigger things. "Hey, look, there's a bullet hole in this wall. AND OMG SOMETHING JUST EXPLODED AND BLEW ME OUT OF MY BOOTS." The explosion might make good plot (in context), but the bullet hole is the detail we're trying t sneak into plain sight.
Another good example of minimized proportion is when a reaction is underplayed for effect. The quietness of a response can cause an extra zing of emotion for the surprised reader. This is the kind of thing that has to be deftly controlled in order to build up to the moment appropriately. Otherwise, it will lose impact instead of gaining it.
There's a great example of this kind of underplayed response in the tv series, "Lost in Austen," about a modern London woman, Amanda Price, who finds herself inserted into Elizabeth Bennet's role in Pride and Prejudice. When Amanda Price first meets Darcy at the assembly dance in Meryton, the moment is underplayed for dramatic effect. Mr. Bingley just asked Amanda to dance, and she declined but lied to him about the reason. Darcy can call her out as a liar if he chooses, something which would not be out of character for the scrupulously honest Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. The moment is beautifully underplayed, and music and a slow pace are used to heighten suspense so that the underplayed response packs an even bigger punch. Here, watch the clip, or the first minute and a half, anyway:
See what I mean? The easy banter between Amanda and Bingley shifts into an almost menacing mood. Slow turn, slow walk, scowl, clashing music, and then, that single word murmured very softly. That is the opposite of melodrama, even if it packs a big wallop of emotion. In other words, an underplayed emotion can still be very powerful. It's not that the emotion is lost, just that it is presented in a different manner.
So if the opposite of melodrama is a minimized detail, then melodrama itself is an exaggerated detail. The purpose of this exaggeration is to make an emotional appeal to the reader. The problem, though, is that melodrama feels cheap, like a giant flashing neon sign reading, "TIME TO BE SAD,'" or "NOW LET'S GET SUPER ANGRY." It creates a passive entertainment experience because the readers don't have to work for it or even become deeply engaged with the text. Everything is on the surface in giant glowing letters. It's too easy.
Melodrama can take many forms. Usually, when we talk about melodrama, we're talking about the emotional component of a scene. If the emotion is bigger than the situation warrants, it's melodramatic. But situations themselves can be melodramatic, as in soap operas where the outlandish is ordinary and the impossible is routine and coincidence is the savior of plot contrivances. And characters can also be melodramatic if they're exaggerated into near-caricatures -- like the villain (and we've all read this villain somewhere or other) whose vicious behavior is never explained. He's evil because he's the villain, and he's the villain because he's evil, and his motivation doesn't get much deeper than that. Another example -- the evil bitch ex-girlfriend in romance, or the first husband who was either physically abusive or sexually impotent. The romantic unfitness of these characters is exaggerated until you wonder why anyone ever agreed to a second date with them, let alone a long-term involvement.
I don't know if that will give you a foolproof way to identify melodrama, or if we're still in "I know it when I see it" territory. But the basic idea is that melodrama results from exaggeration. Learn to evaluate relative proportions of different fiction elements, and you'll have no trouble spotting melodrama.